After 6 Years of Waiting, Illinois’ Conscience-Violating Abortion Referral Mandate Goes to Trial
From Left to Right: Judy Cocks, Dr. Ashley Fernandes, Thomas Olp, Beth Rodriguez, and Patrick Gillen
September 23, 2023
After six years of hanging in the balance, pro-life Illinois physicians and pregnancy help ministries are receiving their day in court in a legal battle to protect the right of conscience in the Land of Lincoln.
On September 20, 2023, Thomas More Society attorneys began a three-day bench trial before U.S. District Court Judge Iain D. Johnston, in the case challenging an Illinois law that seeks to force doctors and pregnancy help centers to refer for abortion—regardless of their conscientious objections, moral or religious.
Schroeder, et al. v. Treto, Jr.challenges the constitutionality of Illinois Senate Bill 1564, a law that was enacted in 2016 and which amended the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.
Illinois’ 2016 amendment to the state’s Heath Care Right of Conscience Act seeks to require physicians and pregnancy help centers to share with patients and clients the so-called “benefits” of abortion, as well as refer their abortion-minded patients and clients to providers who offer abortion. SB 1564 runs roughshod over the free speech, religious exercise, and conscience rights of pro-life physicians and pregnancy help centers.
The federal lawsuit was originally filed March 16, 2017. Thomas More Society is representing Dr. Ronald L. Schroeder, an Illinois physician; 1st Way Life Center and Focus Women's Center, pregnancy help centers in Johnsburg and McHenry, Illinois; and Pregnancy Aid South Suburbs, a group of pregnancy help centers in the Chicagoland area.
In July 2017, a federal judge issued a statewide preliminary injunction against enforcement of SB 1564 in a similar case challenging the law—National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, et al. v. Treto, Jr. For six years, this injunction has blocked enforcement of SB 1564 by the state of Illinois.
Schroeder v. Treto, Jr. and NIFLA v. Treto, Jr. have been consolidated, and now, these cases have together proceeded to the bench trial before the Hon. Iain D. Johnston—which will decide the future of the injunction. Thomas More Society and Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are seeking a permanent halt to the law.
Serving both woman and child
Judy Cocks—Executive Director of Women's Help Services, which oversees the centers in Johnsburg and McHenry—testified on the first day of trial. She spoke to the core reasons SB 1564 violates the conscience of those who serve at pregnancy help centers. “We are faith-based and that informs everything that we do,” Judy said.
Judy testified that some 1st Way volunteers are post-abortive women themselves and choose to volunteer at the pregnancy help center precisely because of those experiences. “There are no medical benefits to abortion,” she said. Commenting on mainstream discourse around abortion, Judy noted, “I see all the ‘happy’ around abortion... the ‘shout your abortion.’”
“What I don’t see, is what I see in my office—the regret,” she added. “I have yet to see what those advantages [of abortion] are.”
Dr. Schroeder opened the second day of trial with his testimony, and Pasha Bohlen—Nurse Manager of Pregnancy Aid South Suburbs, or PASS—followed afterwards. Pasha has worked with child-bearing women for 35 years, trains the medical staff of PASS, and helps runs the centers day-to-day.
Pasha testified to the resources, services, and counseling women receive daily at her pregnancy help centers. Many women who come to PASS “haven’t thought about their options, and they have many issues that might press them to have an abortion… so we address that,” she said.
“We do talk about the short-term and long-term effects of abortion, we also share about our post-abortion counseling, ‘Hope & Healing,’” she explained. “We tell [clients] we don’t recommend, refer, or provide abortion."
"We don’t want to bait and switch... we want to be truthful,” she said. Referring for abortion or sharing so-called “benefits” of abortion would go “against the very foundation of our ministry," Pasha added.
Pasha told the Court that almost daily she experiences clients saying they’re shocked about what they see on an ultrasound. Towards the end of her testimony, she shared a powerful story of a mother who had brought her daughter to a PASS center. They had already decided the daughter would have an abortion, but needed an ultrasound—which was available at no-cost at PASS. As the daughter was scanned, her mother sat on the nearby loveseat and watched. Then, the mother began to cry, saying “I didn’t know.”
Pasha went over to the mother to make sure she was alright, and soon realized that the mother herself had an abortion 20 years previously. It was at that moment, as she saw her grandbaby on the ultrasound, she realized that what she had two decades before, was indeed a baby. “The mother, at the end of the visit, went up to her daughter and told her she would help her keep the baby,” Pasha said.
“We don’t find any benefits to abortion. We believe God is the author of life and life begins at conception,” Pasha added.
“Our clients have spent decades helping women choose life for their unborn babies,” said Thomas Olp, Thomas More Society Executive Vice President and attorney for the plaintiffs. “Our clients view this as a nefarious attempt by the abortion industry to protect its abortion business by silencing pro-life physicians and pregnancy resource centers, that, without a profit motive, try to convince pregnant women to choose life for their unborn child—not abortion.”
The trial concluded Friday, September 22. Patrick Gillen, Thomas More Society Special Counsel, delivered the closing argument for the plaintiffs in Schroeder v. Treto, Jr. and NIFLA v. Treto, Jr.
Gillen argued that Illinois’ Health Care Right of Conscience Act was “once a shield” that protected conscientious objectors—but SB 1564 turns it “into a sword that cuts away plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.”
Moreover, this “expansive compelled speech requirement… flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in NIFLA v. Becerra,” Gillen said. “This Court should grant the plaintiffs the shelter they are entitled to under the First Amendment,” he concluded.